Critical Concepts

Initiation Story


An initiation story is story whose overall plot is concerned with putting the protagonist through a particular sort of experience -- initiation into something for which his/her previous experience had not prepared him/her.  In German, the term for a novel that exhibits this kind of plot, is Bildungsroman -- a novel of education, or "formation."  The idea is that the character with whom our identification is solicited is forced, by the what he/she encounters in the course of the action, to "reformulate" himself or herself, to become "a different person," usually (but not necessarily) someone more complicated, more comprehensive, with wider views.  The opposite process, a retreat into someone more defensive, more narrow minded, is also conceivable.  Stories (short or long) in which happens can be thus be described as turning upon "loss of innocence."  They often focus on children or adolescents.  But since the possibility and conditions of fundamental change is interesting in connection with people in middle and old age as well, initiation stories can just as well in principle involve adults.  Katherine Anne Porter's story "The Death of Granny Weatherall," for example, can insightfully be regarded as an instance of this genre, even though its protagonist is a woman well into years.  

The protagonist of an initiation story is thus going to be a dynamic character.  Though we associate the beginnings of fascination with "personality change" with the broad European cultural movement known as "Romanticism," we can see interest in something like this much earlier as well.  We have only to think of St. Augustine's Confessions -- or, for that matter, the conversion of St. Paul.  

Many initiation plots will turn on an epiphany, although not all do, and not all plots that turn on epiphany present an initiation story.  The change a protagonist undergoes may be so gradual or subtle as not to turn on any definite moment of revelation on the protagonist's part.  Conversely, an epiphantic moment (when it is the protagonist's) may involve a sudden insight into the protagonist's situation that does not result in the protagonist's undergoing a change of character.

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      Contents copyright 2001 by Lyman A. Baker

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  This page last updated 08 September 2000.